The late, great Anthony Bourdain said something about travel that I’d like to share:
“Travel isn’t always pretty. It isn’t always comfortable. Sometimes it hurts, it even breaks your heart. But that’s okay. The journey changes you; it should change you. It leaves marks on your memory, on your consciousness, on your heart, and on your body. You take something with you. Hopefully, you leave something good behind.”
Travel, and its relationship to eating disorder recovery, has been on my mind recently, and with good reason: I have had two really big trips this winter. I recently spent a month in Puerto Rico, and am currently finishing up a month in Thailand (one more week to go!).
The reason why I took these trips is because I hate the winter, which totally sucks where I live, in Philadelphia. I figured, as a freelance writer, I could just pick up my laptop and go work in some warmer climates.
However, I feel that I’ve gotten so much more from the experience than just warm weather.
Travel changes you, sometimes in ways that aren’t immediately evident. In terms of disordered eating, here are just a few observations:
The act of traveling itself requires taking a stand with your eating disorder.
It begins before you even get there! Just getting on a plane or a bus or a train can be terrifying to a disordered eater.
For one thing, it shakes up meal times. Adhering to “appropriate” timing for meals is a residual disordered behavior for me when I get stressed. I’ve spoken to enough other disordered eaters to know that stringency about mealtimes is fairly common with others, too.
So, when I found myself on a 15 hour flight to Asia, I had a real desire to control my intake, to eat by the clock so that I could make sure when I was eating stayed true to my “appropriate” intervals between meals in local time where I had flown from. It got very confusing when every few hours, flight attendants would circulate with meal offerings.
I won’t lie: I wasn’t able to eat every time they brought food. But I did try my hardest to assess whether or not I really was hungry, and I think I did ok.
Even if I stressed out, though, I’m proud of myself. I actually know other disordered eaters who won’t cross time zones for this very reason!
You may not have access to “safe” foods.
At home, it’s easy to stick to my “safety” foods if I want to. I live about a mile from Whole Foods, and I can pretty much make sure that I’m stocked up on things that I feel OK eating at all times.
When traveling, you don’t always have this luxury.
Particularly when you’re in a foreign country, it’s not always easy to ask about the ingredients in a dish, or to ask for substitutions, etc.
This can be a beautiful thing, though, because it requires a bit of surrender. For me, there’s actually something freeing in being able to order something overseas and just trust the chef rather than trying to mold it into a safety food through special ordering or omissions etc.
I love this because it forces me to challenge my behaviors with food and urges me to try new things. It can be scary at times, but I usually find that I’m pretty ok with it.
You might have to eat with others more frequently.
Something that I despised at the height of my eating disorder and still sometimes struggle with today is eating with others. Oh, for a variety of reasons. I’m scared that I’ll eat too much, I’m scared that I won’t eat enough, I’m scared that someone will think I eat like a pig, I’m scared I will lose control.
Guess what? That’s exactly why it’s a great thing to eat with others as frequently as possible.
I won’t lie: when I eat with others, I still consider it a fact finding mission in some ways, where I’m learning how normal eaters approach food. Usually, they don’t automatically divide the plate into quadrants or halves like I do, creating a “safe” portion from the start. Sometimes they finish their plate, sometimes they don’t. I guess what I learn overall from eating with others is that it’s ok to eat a little differently every time, depending on your hunger. To some, that might sound painfully obvious, but to a disordered eater, this can be a pretty radical idea.
You’ll be forced out of your comfort zone (and that’s a good thing)
Oh, I’m a creature of routine. At home, I have my routines with yoga, with food, with walks, with work. And when I travel, they get thrown out the window. Part of me hates it. But part of me loves it, too.
What’s interesting is that I basically still achieve or do the same things on a daily basis, but the schedule is a bit looser when I travel. For instance, at home I start working pretty early, but in Puerto Rico I found that the mornings were more for beach time, and I preferred to work in the afternoon. In Thailand, I’m finding the same.
Instead of fighting it, I go with it. Because what I have realized is that the harder I fight to hold on to routines or structure, the more I suffer.
You’ll get clues as to who you really are.
One of the things that fascinates me about travel is how no matter where I go, I’m still me. Once again, this might sound painfully obvious, but it’s also pretty profound. It’s kind of an amazing feeling to realize that in the scope of the world, I’m a mere speck, yet whether I’m in Philadelphia, Puerto Rico, Seattle, Los Angeles, or Thailand, certain things remain the same.
For example: I love the ritual of coffee in the morning. I love doing Ashtanga yoga. I love taking long walks and getting lost. I love the taste of pineapple, avocado, and apples (not necessarily all at once). I’m a sucker for a great sunrise or sunset.
When I observe these things in myself over and over across time and geographical borders, I start to feel pretty certain that they’re really true parts of me, these things that remain the same. There’s a comfort in recognizing these truths about yourself, because it helps give you a sense of self possession and helps make you more secure in what you want, what you like, and what you need.
Anyhow, I suppose this was kind of a rambling post but the main thing I wanted to share here is that while traveling can be challenging when you have an eating disorder and can even be challenging when you’re in the advanced stages of recovery, it can also be a magical experience that helps you break free of the old behaviors that might still be holding you back.